Stop 'vaccine vultures' from swooping in on COVID-19 clinics looking for second dose: volunteers

More needs to be done to stop so-called “vaccine vultures” who swoop into COVID-19 clinics that target vulnerable groups to get a dose for themselves, say clinic volunteers who endured a recent ugly incident.

Insults, taunts and intimidation were part of a disturbing playbook that has been used at multiple vaccine sites, including one Wednesday when hundreds of people descended on a pop-up clinic at the Cecil Community Centre in Toronto’s Chinatown and demanded to get a second shot — even though they weren’t eligible.

“Clinic staff were accosted by people, primarily privileged members of the white and wealthy community, and they drove into the area with luxury SUVs and bombarded the clinic and demanded second doses,” said Tanya Mok, a volunteer with Friends of Chinatown Toronto.

“Obviously the incident was very distressing. It doesn’t feel good to be verbally assaulted while trying to get your community vaccinated,” she said.

The clinic was supposed to be for people who live in M5T, the postal code zone that covers Chinatown and Kensington Market. But the crowd showed up, unaware of the limits — or unwilling to believe the volunteers who tried to rebuff them.

It’s not clear where they got the idea that the clinic was offering second doses — according to the provincial framework, second doses are only available to high risk health care workers, First Nations, Inuit and Metis individuals. Starting the week of May 31st, people aged 80 years or older can start to book appointments on the provincial system.

Mok believes that the health agencies that organized the Cecil Community Centre clinic were disorganized, resulting in extra stress on the volunteers by asking them to do translation and other jobs, and by relaying incorrect messages about who was eligible.

For example, one tweet from the Mid West Toronto Ontario Health Team, a co-organizer of the event, said the clinic was open to anyone over 18 who lives in any postal code, something repeated by MPP Chris Glover in a video on twitter.

Pop up vaccine clinic today and tomorrow Cecil Street Community Centre.

12+ Pfizer
12-15 yr old must be accompanied
All postal codes
Mandarin & Cantonese interpreters

Another pop up this Thurs & Fri @scadding_court

See https://t.co/0icRfa4i3M for latest vaccine info pic.twitter.com/cNj9sx4nDG

— Chris Glover (@ChrisGloverMPP) May 25, 2021

Emergency room doctor Lisa Salamon Switzman said the bad behaviour is usually timed to when a new group of people becomes eligible — and when people giving vaccines make well-meaning exceptions that are amplified on social media until people think they are the rule.

“Every time we make an exception they tell the whole world and we have everyone bombarding us,” Dr. Salamon-Switzman told CTV News Toronto. “It’s really upsetting, some of the names we get called. We shouldn’t be seeing this.’

The University Health Network, which was a co-organizer of the Cecil Community Centre clinic, said in a statement, “The clinics will have additional security staff and posters indicating that the clinics are for first doses only… the behaviour of those who demanded second shots at the Cecil Community Centre is reprehensible.”

Mok said the health agencies should give volunteer groups better training and support to handle the unpleasant task of turning people away — as well as making sure they provide enough resources so the volunteers aren’t forced to deal with angry vaccine vultures by themselves.

“If this has happened before, why weren’t we informed? Why weren’t there systems in place to protect the people that we’re trying to serve?” she asked.